Literacy difficulties and the Pupil Premium

Written by: Sarah Driver | Published:
Photo: iStock

Whole-school approaches to supporting students with persistent literacy difficulties and spending the Pupil Premium are essential. Sarah Driver explains more and offers practical advice and ideas

First introduced in 2011, the Pupil Premium originally attracted a budget of £625 million. This has substantially increased and currently stands at just over £2.5 billion. Primary schools receive £1,320 per pupil for those who are eligible for free school meals or are in care, or have been in the last six years. Department for Education (DfE) allocations show that on average primary schools receive £91,000 per year.

Due to changes in school funding, the Pupil Premium has only increased budgets in 55 per cent of schools in real terms. This has meant that some schools with the most disadvantaged pupils actually now receive less than in 2010. School funding is complex, but the DfE spends more in different areas than others and this is further complicated by the role of local authorities. As such, funding for disadvantaged pupils varies considerably from between two to 20 per cent of school funding.

As a school governor, I understand just how important addressing the attainment gap is. The statistics speak for themselves – just 67.4 per cent achieve the expected levels in reading, writing and mathematics at key stage 2. These figures are compounded by SEN, such as dyslexia, because pupils with SEN are twice as likely to be eligible for the Pupil Premium than those without SEN.

The government says that two million children have benefited from this additional funding. However, evidence from the National Audit Office suggests that between 2011 and 2014 the attainment gap for eligible pupils decreased by just 4.7 per cent in primary schools. The DfE expects the full impact of funding to be felt no earlier than 2023 for secondary schools – the length of time it will take pupils to pass through all stages of their school careers.

Closing the gap

Literacy is clearly an important area for schools, being fundamental to both primary and secondary years. However, it is difficult to get a sense of how the Pupil Premium is used nationally. A poll published by the Sutton Trust, using NFER Teachers' Voice Omnibus, found that the two largest areas of Pupil Premium spending are in early intervention schemes and one-to-one tuition.

While these are obviously valid and certainly appealing to a busy teacher as a relatively simple way of accelerating pupil progress, my concern is that such interventions, as well as one-to-one tuition, can be very expensive.

Although using funds in this way is clearly appropriate if the outcomes for an individual justify it, the concern is that money is being directed toward expensive fixes, albeit with good intentions, rather than assessing and identifying the real cause of a pupil's difficulties.

At Driver Youth Trust we work with schools to address the needs of pupils with persistent literacy difficulties, such as dyslexia, through a whole-school approach to literacy, which has at its core early identification and intervention but emphasises other, often inexpensive strategies, for improving outcomes. We believe that teachers, pupils and parents benefit from this approach because it addresses the needs of pupils early on and ensures that they receive on-going support, which translates into them experiencing success.

In my view investment into classrooms should be the real focus for school leaders. Our experience of working with the 31 academies within the Ark network shows that the key to success is to ensure that any approach is both endorsed by leadership teams and is delivered across the entire school.

A whole-school approach is not like an intervention, it is about ensuring that schools are structured and organised in such a way that ensures these methods are fully integrated into school operations. It is about giving the classroom teacher the skills to recognise difficulties, for example dyslexia, to know what they can do about it themselves, and to know when to signpost for additional support.

It is this whole-school approach which recognises the individual needs of pupils and which we believe is crucial to the long-term ambition of closing the gap. It also accords with the Children and Families Act (2014) and the SEND Code of Practice. It places responsibility for attainment with the classroom teacher using the graduated response of "Assess, plan, do, review". As the Code notes: "Teachers are responsible and accountable for the progress and development of the pupils in their class, including where pupils access support from teaching assistants or specialist staff."

Addressing literacy needs at the whole-school level

Leadership: Having the leadership team engaged as much as the classroom teacher is essential. It is the senior leadership team's responsibility to set priorities, ensure the school has the right policies and, just as importantly, that these are enacted and enforced.

Training: Give all of your staff regular training and make sure to include a variety of speakers, including parents and pupils, to gain new perspectives.

Identification: Establish a robust identification procedure that starts as early as possible. Screening year 1 pupils in the autumn term is one way to show which pupils may not achieve the expected progress by the time they sit the phonics screening test.

Classroom practice: Making adjustments in the classroom is relatively simple. For example decluttering your interactive whiteboard, using word banks and writing frames, reducing copying tasks and identifying homework clearly are all strategies which could be implemented in the coming term.

Introducing technology, which need not be expensive, can help pupils to become more independent learners. In addition such practices are likely to benefit every child in your class, not just those with dyslexia. Freely available resources can also be used to support literacy teaching.

Parental engagement: A workshop for parents is a great way to provide information about literacy difficulties, including dyslexia, with the aim of building collaborative relationships. The focus of this session should be on ways parents can support their children at home.

Managing transitions: Demonstrating what secondary school is like for your year 6 pupils is a great first step in getting them to think about how different their new school might be. Taster lessons in specific subjects can help with vocabulary as well as understanding new material.

The Teaching and Learning Toolkit

Alongside the Pupil Premium, the government is investing £137 million (over 15 years) into the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) to develop and spread evidence of what works. Use of the EEF's Teaching and Learning Toolkit is on the rise with 64 per cent of schools now reporting using it to inform their Pupil Premium spending decisions.

This is a very encouraging sign and we need our teachers and schools to have a much better sense of what is effective for disadvantaged pupils, especially those struggling with literacy.

The Toolkit is an excellent resource for identifying how funds can be used efficiently to deliver both effective provision and the best possible impact. It should go without saying that these pupils need to make much greater progress than the average, otherwise the gap will never been closed.


The opportunity to deliver a whole-school approach to literacy does not have to be disruptive or costly. The Pupil Premium is a source of funding which can and should be put to good use for pupils with persistent literacy difficulties, whether those pupils have SEN, free school meals or neither, especially as an estimated 148,000 pupils who leave primary are unable to read to the expected standard.

The essential point is that by taking a whole-school approach to literacy and targeting funds in a specific way you can improve the performance of the pupils in your school, to say nothing about making their everyday learning experiences enjoyable. 

  • Sarah Driver is founder and chair of the Driver Youth Trust. She would like to acknowledge the input into this article of Chris Rossiter, director of the Driver Youth Trust.

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